Lots and little of David Lynch are on view in The Art Life, as is so often the case. For the filmmaker behind enigmatic masterworks like Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr., and the cult series Twin Peaks—whose upcoming revival makes this new documentary from Janus Films especially timely—ambiguity tantalizes in a way linear storytelling never could. That vagueness typically extends to Lynch himself, whose reserve in interviews matches the elusiveness of his movies, which so often proves frustrating to anyone digging for some tidy, armchair psychologist’s interpretation of the Freudian nightmares in his work. Lynch usually demurs that he’s just a vessel for his many unsettling creations, comparing their genesis to catching fish or putting together puzzles whose pieces have been flipped over one by one for him—presenting himself as merely the interpreter of notions received from some mystical source, and all but removing himself from the process. But because this assertion belies what is clearly one of the most recognizable authorial voices in cinema, it rarely satisfies. Critics, fans, and interviewers keep probing Lynch in hopes that, eventually, he will confess to the many emotional traumas that must surely be roiling just below his serene, folksy surface.
The Art Life comes as close as anyone ever has to cracking that. Directed by Jon Nguyen—whose 2007 documentary, Lynch, tracked the director while he assembled Inland Empire, and who, along with Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes, spent four years compiling the audio interviews that serve here as narration—it’s a notably more intimate study of the man, rather than his movies. In fact, anyone looking for behind-the-scenes clips or anecdotes will leave disappointed: The film assumes an audience familiarity with his oeuvre that will fill in the subtext behind its various insights into Lynch’s impulses. What it offers is a more personal chronicle of Lynch’s formative years, told through extensive use of old photos and home movies, that ends just as he’s beginning to put together Eraserhead.
Some of those insights prove quietly revelatory. When Lynch describes a memory of the night his childhood suburban idyll was shattered by a sudden encounter with a naked, bloodied woman stumbling through the streets, the fan doesn’t have to work hard to fill in the blanks on how this trauma would resurface over and over in his work, from Blue Velvet on. Similar connections are drawn—though never outright articulated—among his parents’ stolidly upstanding, curfew-enforcing, profanity-hating wholesomeness; Lynch’s own vague allusions to when he “fell in with a bad crowd” as a teen; and his films’ shared themes of corrupted innocence. Meanwhile, Lynch’s descriptions of the various hostile, racist, hissing crazies in his 1970s Philadelphia neighborhood is practically Shakespeare In Love for the way it lays out the origins behind all those Lynchian evils lurking next door. (Lynch’s stories about smoking weed with his old roommate, J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, are slightly less illuminating—but way funnier.)
Of course, Lynch, who used to present himself as “Eagle Scout, Missoula Montana” in his press bios, has long talked reverently about his white-picket-fence upbringing and how living in a world that was, as he reiterates here, “no bigger than a couple of blocks” informed his understanding of the many wonders and horrors contained within small towns. And in the many black-and-white photos Nguyen and Co. dig up of a beaming, cherubic Lynch wielding a toy gun while he leads his childhood friends through a round of make-believe, it’s easy to draw a direct line to Lynch doing that for a living on film sets that were about the same size as his boyhood stomping grounds. After all, what is a director but the kid who’s best at playing make-believe?
But where The Art Life proves most informative to longtime Lynch fans is in its closely observed depiction of his creative process, glimpsed here as he putters around his home studio in the Hollywood Hills, his adorable toddler daughter in tow, creating paintings, sculptures, music, or whatever else strikes his fancy. Lynch describes how his father instilled in him the hardworking, self-reliant rancher’s appreciation for building things and finding joy in the moment of the work, while Lynch—and the film’s title—take their greatest inspiration from painter Bushnell Keeler, a friend’s father who became Lynch’s mentor and nigh-Dickensian benefactor and whose living of “the art life” (“You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, you paint, and that’s it”) became the model on which he has based everything. In this, the documentary portrays Lynch’s entire career as an outgrowth of this innate love of the methodical, capturing him as a man who hates leaving his woodshed and is never happier than when left alone to his craft.
Evidence of that craft is on display throughout, as Lynch’s artwork—from paintings to sculptures to one of his earliest film shorts, “The Alphabet”—frequently fills the screen, its disturbing phantasmagoria providing an amusing juxtaposition to all the calm shots of Lynch dabbing at a canvas, recording his narration, half-glimpsed in the shadows of a sound booth or, most often, staring off contemplatively while smoking (always smoking). One of the chief questions posed by The Art Life, as in every Lynch profile that has preceded it and is to come, is just how much those disturbing images speak to some secret inner torment. As Jason S.’ tense, claustrophobic camera serves up a montage of disfigured faces screaming “HELP ME” that seem straight out of a serial killer’s bedroom, all set to a score of menacing synthesizer buzzes, it’s tempting to read the film as an implicit therapy session, slyly making the sort of psychological analysis that Lynch has so long resisted. Ultimately, that’s left up to the audience. Lynch wouldn’t want it any other way.